Working Cities Challenge teams learn from each other (and a jar of Skittles) at 1st-ever summit Working Cities Challenge teams learn from each other (and a jar of Skittles) at 1st-ever summit

Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island WCC teams share lessons, best practices Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island WCC teams share lessons, best practices

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The game of guessing the number of Skittles in a jar may seem an unlikely metaphor for how to best solve complicated social and economic challenges, but the process puts two key decision-making styles to the test: Would the best guess be from an individual? Or would it be an average of the guesses of people in the room – the “wisdom of the crowd?”

We found out at a gathering last month in Worcester of the 11 teams of the Working Cities Challenge, a community development initiative of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

The challenge is underway in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and this was the first-ever Working Cities Interstate Summit. The goal was to take a step back and learn from each other about the challenges and rewards of the WCC model, which relies on our teams to harness the diverse perspectives of people across a community to solve big problems, like crime and poverty.

The WCC was founded in 2013, and we’ve learned over six years that we were right to believe in the power of collaboration. We’ve also found the teams face similar challenges. So to start 2020, we bought the teams together, including more than 80 residents and leaders from the 11 communities (with a combined population of 800,000-plus!), to learn from each other, and maybe from that jar of Skittles. More on that later.

One of the best ways to learn is to learn by (someone else’s) experience

The goals of the summit were to have teams leave with:

  1. new lessons and ways they could act to strengthen their initiatives
  2. stronger relationships with other teams that can help them improve their own work

The summit’s sessions and activities were designed to maximize opportunities for attendees to meet new people and learn from them. We also had teams huddle at key intervals to reflect and document what they learned and how that will shape their own practices.

In the days and weeks after the summit, the teams told us it had already resulted in new approaches. The discoveries and breakthroughs included:

  • Cranston realized they’d underestimated the value of time together and decided to meet to update their shared goals and strategies to better reflect the current status of their work.
  • Danbury revisited their team’s shared goal and strategies to ensure they reflected their experience and lessons learned, and to adjust goals to make them easier to measure and attain.
  • Haverhill redesigned a team meeting based on conversations at the summit, and it resulted in broader ownership of their plan to sustain the initiative after the initial funding expires.
  • Pittsfield connected with the Boston Fed’s Steve Michon, leader of the new WCC round in Vermont, to help shape sessions for new Vermont teams that received planning grants.
  • Springfield rethought an idea to expand to a more regional approach after feedback from other teams convinced them they could still reach their goals without large-scale rebranding.

Benefiting from each other’s expertise

Beyond these discoveries, the gathering gave teams welcome space to be together, away from their home communities. It was an informal time to hear and learn about challenges shared by peer cities. In post-event evaluations, attendees said they’d been affirmed by the gathering and the fact they aren’t alone.

What’s next? There’s already talk about an annual summit. And as we bring in the new WCC teams from Vermont, we will continue thinking about how to connect across state borders. Over the next few months, we’ll also experiment with some virtual “peer to peer” consulting sessions, where a team seeks advice on a local question or challenge. We’ll also organize topic-specific calls on technical matters, like how to talk with banks about community partnerships.

We intentionally didn’t bring outside experts to the summit. We had faith that the “wisdom of the crowd” we gathered would be wise indeed. It was, and it turned out our jar of Skittles also backed up our assumption. The crowd’s average guess? It was 755, within 10 candy pieces of the actual number of 765, and better by a mile than the best individual guess.